The must-do highlights of Bali
From the famous rice terraces to the incredible coastal temples, these are the highlights no visitor to Bali should miss.
More than a million Australians will head to the beaches of Bali in the next year, and with an estimated 4000 places to stay on the island, deciding where to spend your holiday hotel dollar isn't easy. While villas have space, privacy and a personal touch, resorts offer an endless array of things to do and facilities on the doorstep – and choosing is a fun problem to have.
VILLA KUBU, SEMINYAK
A flawless pink frangipani falls silently into the pool in our private garden just as I look up from my book. From our villa's extravagantly cushioned day bed, I watch more blooms follow, carried on the afternoon breeze. I notice the silence, feel the sunshine and watch kites overhead, launched from a festival on the beach nearby. Yet five minutes away, chaos reigns at one of Seminyak's busiest intersections.
It's difficult to overstate the bedlam that unfolds day and night, just a few hundred metres from our tropical refuge; a parade of scooters relentlessly honking while taxis, trucks and buses jostle their way across the junction. But back at Villa Kubu, we can't hear Bali's famously awful traffic thanks to high stone walls surrounding our retreat. I climb into the large tub in our open-air bathroom and go back to my book.
Our family-of-five compound consists of a one and two-bedroom villa connected by a heavy wooden door between our gardens. Two pools, two bathrooms and two kitchens mean everyone can be together for meals and swims but also enjoy privacy.
Ten of the 17 villas here can be connected, making them perfect for families, friends and inter-generational groups. Family villas have air-conditioned movie rooms, pool toys and an in-room dining kids' menu.
Some villas in the complex are more luxurious than others and configurations vary but the authentic Balinese design and garden seduction is universal. Poolside day beds and sprawling under-cover sofas are made for reading, dozing and taking in an array of flowers, fish ponds and bamboo trees, which when lit at night, make the setting even more magical.
A sumptuous, seven-course barbecue dinner cooked in our lantern-lit garden and served outdoors is as memorable for the food as it is for the ambience. This made-to-order meal is a must-do for any stay here.
Its location, off the main road and up a narrow lane, means you can't walk to the beach but Seminyak's humming shopping and dining precinct is a short shuttle bus or cab ride away.
Along with the seclusion and space, perhaps the main difference between staying here and a big-brand resort is the warm and personal hospitality of our hosts. When we are out and about, we can message our hosts on Whatsapp if we need advice, get lost or need a translation.
Early evening check-out, timed with Australian midnight flights home, is also a considerate touch.
Down the road, sister property LataLiana Villas is closer to the beach and takes a villa stay in Seminyak to the next level of luxury. Two magnificent modern pool villas, set in a 4000-square-metre estate, come with eight bedrooms and 22 staff, making them perfect for large groups.
SOFITEL, NUSA DUA
It's lunchtime when we arrive in Nusa Dua, home to a security-gated string of international beachfront resorts. At just five years old, the Sofitel is the newest of the string, blending Indonesian open-air design with French elegance.
After checking in we descend the stairs leading from the rather grand circular foyer to the ground floor and find ourselves in foodie heaven, aka the Kwee Zeen buffet.
The fragrance of curry lures me in one direction, while the rest of the family scatters to a carvery, a seafood hub and a dumpling station respectively. The lavish selection of Indonesian, Indian, Japanese and Western cuisine also includes a dessert room, a bakery and a cheese room, make choosing almost impossible and overeating a certainty. It's not surprising that the Sofitel, founded in food-loving France, is committed to elevating the dining experience for holidaymakers with ample time to linger over meals. And we do just that, making our way around a world of flavours, not for the last time, during our three-day stay.
Fine food is also one of the signature selling points of the hotel's new Manarai Beach House, the first so-called "lifestyle and entertainment" venues to hit the beachfront. Former Shangri-La Paris chef Stefan Poyet has created a menu for Manarai's two restaurants fusing French and Indonesian cuisine and designed a cocktail menu laden with local ingredients. Like many of the island's beach clubs, this upmarket seaside playground – which opened in September – will be all about chilling in the day and partying at night.
The club is set in the hotel's park-like grounds and unlike other similar venues here, it's free to enter. The seaside lawn is a peaceful spot for early morning mother-daughter yoga, and after class, we can't pass outdoor massage day beds without booking an appointment.
When staying in a resort over a villa, what you lose in accommodation space, you gain in activities, facilities and a choice of where to eat and drink. It's about staying put to enjoy all the distractions – tennis, beach volleyball, soccer games, aqua classes, the fitness centre and a magnificently designed day spa. You can even return home with whiter teeth and new life goals thanks to cosmetic dentistry and life coaching on offer at the hotel's Vietura centre.
In a resort this size you need to remember to make bookings for dining so you don't miss out given the large number of fellow guests. We discovered this the hard way when we couldn't get a table at the poolside eatery Cucina during our school-holiday stay.
With three of us sharing a room, it's cosy but our pool access room with patio is excellent fun with a tributary of the main lagoon pool winding its way right up to our back door. Stepping from the patio straight into the pool, wading our way to the swim-up bar and cafe is daily treat.
WHERE TRAVELLER READERS STAY
Two young families, six children
The Cotton House, Seminyak
"It's a stunning seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom villa with oversize L-shaped private pool. It has a team of staff including a chef who serves beautiful meals outdoors or in an air-conditioned dining area. It's perfect for families with interconnecting rooms, multiple living areas and an enormous lawn. It's located in a very quiet 'gang' [small road] but very central so we could easily walk to the shops and cafes."
Kate Perry, mother of two
Mother and son
Aston Hotel, Canggu and The Royal, Seminyak
"We chose Canggu because its close to an intermediate surfing beach but there's not much there besides a few bars and restaurants. It's a small and basic hotel but did have a beautiful pool and lounge area and good food. In Seminyak we had an amazing, modern room at the Royal Hotel, which was recommended by friends. It has a spacious well-equipped gym, yoga classes and the pool area is spectacular with a pool bar, a sunny outlook to the beach and lounges on the beachfront grass. The service was fantastic and it had an enormous breakfast buffet selection with a gluten-free table.The best things for teens here is the surf lessons on the beach."
Ginelle Kelly, mother of son, 15
17people, family and friends
Lataliana Villas, Seminyak
"We chose LataLiana to host a 60th birthday party for all our family and friends. We had 17 people, including five small children, spread across connecting villas. The entire experience was amazing. The food was above restaurant standard. A traditional Bali rice barn in the grounds was a haven for the older kids [and] all six kids slept together every night. They had the holiday of a lifetime enjoying all the amenities. We adults all had our own spacious bedroom suites. We can't wait to come back. "
Liz Devine, party host
SURFERS AND YOUNG COUPLES
Surfer 27 and partner 23
Boho Bingin Beach, Uluwatu
"Boho has a luxe tree-of-life vibe with pastel-painted furniture, lilac cushions, vines crawling up the walls and Buddha statues. There's a reading area with a day bed and a wall full of books. The massage room is in a tree house and the dining area has a communal table, giving you the opportunity to talk to other guests. The entrance to Uluwatu's popular surfing beach is a five-minute walk and beach clubs are a short cab-ride away.I would stay there again as it was reasonably priced with super friendly staff, and very, very pretty!"
Felicity Light, 23
Angie Kelly travelled with the assistance of Villa Kubu and Sofitel Nusa Dua.
Garuda Indonesia has direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Bali Denpasar. See garuda-indonesia.com
Villa Kubu is a boutique collection of unique one, two and three-bedroom pool villas with bar, cafe, spa, in-villa chefs and a shuttle service five-minutes by car from the heart of Seminyak's dining and shopping strip. See villakubu.com Sofitel Nusa Dua is a 415-room, five-star resort with 39 suites and villas. Set on Bali's southern peninsula, it has a giant lagoon pool, two restaurants, three bars, gym, spa and well-being clinic. See sofitel.accorhotels.com
See also: Six of the world's best beach clubs